But I didn’t come here to talk about the movie, or James Cameron. I came here to talk about virtue signaling, and white saviors crusading against white saviors, and offer some hot takes that will almost certainly lead to angry emails in my inbox.
Before we dive in to the rage, let me say that when I talk about “virtue signaling,” I don’t mean Virtue Signaling™, the brand that the American right uses to tarnish any display of empathy or compassion that suggests one is anything other than a complete sociopath. (I expand a little on the distinction between virtue signaling and Virtue Signaling™ over here.)
Okay, let’s do this.
James Cameron and the Synthetic Rage Machine
Back in 2009, James Cameron, of Aliens and Terminator 2 fame, made a movie called Avatar. I watched it, thought it was really good, watched it again, and then forgot about it. It’s showy but, like cotton candy, it melts quickly, leaving nothing behind.
Avatar was fluff. Fluff that was a bit problematic, with its overtones of “white hero saves the noble savages” tropes, but fluff.
However, it made more money than a televangelist with a coke habit, so it was perhaps inevitable there would be a second.
Now the second movie is here, and the liberal internetverse is aflame with acrimony, because if there’s one thing the modern-day liberal is absolutely certain of, it’s that the path to a kinder, more just, more empathic and inclusive society starts with screaming hate.
The issue, which I will confess I haven’t done hours of research about as I don’t actually have much interest in the second Avatar movie, appears to be the issue of cultural appropriation, leavened with a heaping teaspoon of white-saviorism. If you want a dive down the rabbit hole, you can find out more here and here and here and here, and good luck to you.
Predictably, the outrage spread like wildfire on Twitter, where people eager to show other people how much they supported the indigenous without, you know, actually doing anything inconvenient or costly to support the indigenous took to their keyboards:
Oh, no, wait, sorry, wrong Twitter outrage.
Ahem. The outrage spread on Twitter, where one particular Tweet was copy-pasted (not retweeted, not shared, but posted word for word) about 6,000 times, according to Google, not including posts on locked accounts. I won’t bother to link to any of them—you can find them if you want—but I will say they were even copy-pasted by people I once had genuine respect for. People I used to look up to. It’s hard to watch your heroes die.
Now, here’s the thing:
I’m not saying that Avatar isn’t problematic. I’m not telling you to see it…I’ve enjoyed not watching it, and I look forward to not watch it again. This isn’t really about Avatar at all, it’s about public masturbation.
All those thousands of copy-pasted tweets, all those people publicly proclaiming their support for indigenous people in the same way by repeating other people’s words—they’re wanking. “Look at me! Loot at me! Am I a good person now? I’m saying the right things. That makes me a good person, right? Right? Look at me!”
Virtue vs Virtue Signaling
How do you tell the difference between virtue and virtue signaling?
Virtue makes the world a better place. Virtue signaling makes you feel better about yourself.
When I look at Tweets about supporting underprivileged indigenous people by not watching a movie, I can’t help but think, “Point to the person who has a better life because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to a tangible improvement in someone’s quality of life because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the hungry person who was fed because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the village that had no water but now has a new well because you didn’t watch this movie. Point to the sick child that now has medical care because you didn’t watch this movie.”
What? What’s that you say? Speak up. A little louder, please, I can’t hear you.
Oh, really? You didn’t actually improve anyone’s life? You just…didn’t watch a movie? That’s…that’s it?
Then shut the fuck up. You’re not supporting anyone. You’re showing off for the other people in your social set.
See, I could understand respecting someone who said “You know what, this movie has problematic aspects. An average theater ticket costs $15. Instead of watching it, why don’t you take that $15 and donate it to this particular fund that serves this particular underprivileged community in this particular way.”
If you do that, at least you’re actually benefitting someone besides yourself, even if it’s only in a small way. You’re actually, you know, making a tiny change in the world.
But if you’re not willing to do that? You’re showing off. Your “virtue” is empty, pretentious posing, benefitting nobody but you, a way for you to brag to people in your peer group without actually expending anything more than the barest minimum effort. You copy-pasted a sentence into Twitter! Ooh, you’re so courageous, posturing to win praise from your friends. Looking at you, making a difference in the world.
Paving the Way to a Better World
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The thing I like about my fellow progressives is that we—well, most of us, anyway—do sincerely want the world to be better tomorrow than it is today. We do genuinely want to live in a world that is more egalitarian, more open, more honest, more compassionate, more fair.
No matter how many “this is the world the Liberals want” memes the alt-right makes.
But too many progressives want something else more than we want a better world: We want to know where the lines are between Us and Them. Why? Because we want—indeed, need—to feel superior to someone. The most right-wing, hardcore Evangelical Baptist has nothing on an average urban progressive when it comes to sanctimony.
(Side note here: the irony of white men riding in to save the day against white saviors by copy-pasting Tweets, rather than, you know, actually saving anyone…well, if there were a Nobel Prize for Irony, I’m not saying it would win, but it would definitely be a contender.)
It cannot, it cannot be okay if the intention of progressives—which I assume it is—is progress forward into a future of more empathy and understanding for more people, it cannot be that the primary mechanism by which we’re going to make that progress is the suppression of empathy and understanding for anyone who doesn’t align with our beliefs. It cannot be that unmitigated expression of furious outrage will somehow alchemize into a future of peace and love.
If you want the world to be better when you wake tomorrow than it was when you woke today, but you want to bask in the warm glow of your own righteousness while you make empty gestures of great vengeance and furious anger those who dare tread too close to the line between Us and Them even more…
The next time you sit down at your computer to blast evil from the comfort and safety of your keyboard, you brave and noble cultural warrior, you, but you cannot point to a single person whose cause you champion who actually ends up tangibly better off for it…mmmaybe don’t, okay?
Merry Christmas. May 2023 bring you less virtue signaling and more virtue.
In 1170, King Henry II of England, fed up with his former BFF Thomas Becket (who started criticizing the Crown after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury), declared “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” And, of course, since he was the king, four knights (Reginald Fitz-Urse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton) heard that as a call to action, whereupon they rode to Canterbury and murdered Becket in what is likely the first recorded example of stochastic terrorism.
the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted
It’s about inciting people to acts of harassment, bullying, or violence without directly telling them what to do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about stochastic terrorism lately, not just in terms of American politics, but in a more immediate, more personal context.
Stochastic terrorism uses inflammatory language likely to get someone somewhere to commit violence, without quite going so far as to say anything that might be directly construed as incitement to violence. You know, like “I only lost the election because the Democrats cheated and they‘ll go on cheating until we all use our Second Amendment rights to take back our country.”
This isn’t a direct command to a specific person to take a direct action, but it has predictable effects.
But I didn’t come here to talk about Donald Trump.
Stochastic violence is a broad idea, and I think it plays out in a thousand tiny ways we might not think about at first. Thing is, we are all susceptible, to some degree, to indirect incitement; it’s just that different people have different levels of susceptibility and different lines past which they won’t go.
All of us are, in the right circumstances, willing to heed the non-specific but righteous call to take up arms, figuratively or literally speaking, for a noble but non-specific cause. Yes, including you.
Stochastic terrorism is, I think, the extreme end of a continuum, a gradual incline from low-level bullying to premeditative violence. Stochastic bullying is the gateway to stochastic terrorism. And we currently live in a world where this has become normalized, a background of our lives.
Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the human condition:
People like to bully.
People like to bully. People enjoy it. Take your average random person off the street, no matter his political affiliation, and give them a reason to bully someone—a reason that their peers, the people they care about, would find acceptable and justifiable. Let him loose and odds are good he will bully. You can make a bully of anyone; you need only find some value they care about and convince them that someone has violated that value and Bob’s your uncle.
Add the anonymity of the Internet and the deal is, for way too many people, sealed. People like to bully. Give someone a justification, a rationalization that lets them sleep at night, and give them the anonymity of the Internet, and boom, you can make a bully of almost anyone.
People bully for a lot of reasons, but there is no bully as zealous as the self-righteous bully, the bully who bullies with the pious fervor of one who is defending Truth and Justice. The stochastic bully is the keyboard warrior version of King Henry’s knights: a person who rides into battle harassing and doxxing others because someone he (or she) looks up to has declared a righteous cause.
Let me offer an example. I know this essay is getting long, but bear with me.
Some time ago, I knew a person who, after a bad breakup, was accused of abuse by their partner. These accusations were long on the pushbutton language in sex positive communities, but short on details.
All communities have rules and norms, signifiers that separate in-group from out-group. In sex-positive spaces, for instance, you’ll see people say things like:
All accusations are always 100% truthful 100% of the time, unless they are made by someone who has been accused of abuse first, in which case they are always, without fail, an attempt to dodge accountability.
Nobody ever lies about abuse. Nobody ever distorts, mis-states, or exaggerates…again, unless they’ve previously been accused of abuse themselves, in which case it is 100% certain that anything they say is a lie, 100% of the time.
The only moral action when confronted by an accusation of abuse is to believe the accusation wholeheartedly. Asking for more details is enabling abuse. Asking followup questions is enabling abuse. Any attempt at fact-finding is enabling abuse, if it doesn’t support the accusations anyway.
It’s easy to see where these ideas come from. For decades—centuries, perhaps—we’ve lived in societies that tolerate and condone abuse, particularly along social power lines. Many people, in a genuine desire to create a more just and equitable society, are beginning to push back against that.
Somewhere along the way, though, these things became virtue signals: designators of who is good and who is bad, who belongs and who doesn’t. And, like all virtue signals, they became markers of who it is and is not okay to bully. Someone accused of abuse: OK to bully.
So, predictably, the person I knew became a target of harassment and bullying…and, of course, being stripped of her social circle made it far easier for bullies to harry and hound her.
Funny, that. Throughout history, it has always, always been true that depriving someone of their social support is the #1 tool of abusers. And so it is in many sex-positive communities, which say “Beware anyone who tries to separate people from their social support, that’s what abusers do…oh, so-and-so has been accused of something by someone? SHUN! SHUN”
You abused me by refusing to give me what I wanted
This person’s accuser was shy on details, and when I and someone else asked for those details, we eventually got something that was…distinctly not abuse, and in fact was reasonable and healthy boundary-setting. But the thing is, those details were never part of the accusation, and somewhere along the way, in many sex-positive circles, it became evil to ask for followup information when someone says “I was abused.”
I naively believed once the details of the accusation were known, the harassment and bullying would stop. I was wrong.
I was surprised at the time. I’m not any more. In fact, nowadays, it’s exactly what I would expect. It turns out that people who are logical and rational, who make reasoned decisions, who see themselves as genuinely good people, regularly—routinely, even—support and enable bullies and abusers.
And guess what? That’s a completely rational response.
The Bank Robber’s Gun
Picture the scene: It’s the middle of the afternoon. A bank robber bursts into a crowded lobby waving a pistol. He says “This is a stickup! Everybody down!” Chaos, panic, confusion. Maybe the security guard jumps at him and gets shot or something.
Now, there are 20 or 30 people in the bank. The robber is holding a revolver. It’s got six shots, or maybe five; and if he’s just taken a shot at the security guard, that leaves him with five, maybe four. If all the customers rush him, he cannot win. He can’t reload fast enough.
No rational person would rush him. Each of the 20-30 people in the bank will make the same calculation and come to the same conclusion: The first person to rush him is getting shot. I’m not going to let that be me. And so, nobody rushes him.
So he takes everyone hostage, and ties them all up, and now if things go sideways he can kill them all at his leisure. What was a situation where he could not possibly hope to win becomes a situation where he is certain to win, all because rational people made a reasonable decision in their own self-interest…a decision made by everyone else, that dooms everyone.
Classic example from history: the McCarthy Communist hunts. Anyone who is accused is assumed guilty. People on the sidelines who know a particular target of the McCarthyists is innocent sure as hell aren’t going to say so, because anyone who does, becomes the next target too. Silence becomes self-preservation.
So imagine some person in a subcommunity facing a situation like the one my acquaintance was in:
He knows they’ve been accused of something bad.
He knows they’ve being bullied and harassed.
Beyond that, he knows them only as a vague blur, a face in the crowd. He has no connection with her other than that.
Of course he’s going to shun them. Of course it doesn’t matter if the accusations have merit. Of course it doesn’t matter if he even believes them or not. It would be stupid to expect anything else.
He would, in a purely rational sense, be a complete moron to do anything but shun them. Anyone who doesn’t go along with the shunning ends up on the wrong side of the in-group/out-group signaling, and becomes the target of the same people who are bullying her. If he lets her back in, he puts himself .
What rational person would stick up for someone, put himself in the line of fire for someone who is essentially a stranger?
That’s how stochastic bullying works.
And so, entire communities become held hostage by small numbers of bullies.
Virtue Signaling: Believing the Unbelievable
There’s an absolutely fascinating essay over on Slate Star Codex called The Toxoplasma of Rage. In it, the author makes an interesting observation:
But in the more general case, people can use moral decisions to signal how moral they are. In this case, they choose a disastrous decision based on some moral principle. The more suffering and destruction they support, and the more obscure a principle it is, the more obviously it shows their commitment to following their moral principles absolutely. For example, Immanuel Kant claims that if an axe murderer asks you where your best friend is, obviously intending to murder her when he finds her, you should tell the axe murderer the full truth, because lying is wrong. This is effective at showing how moral a person you are – no one would ever doubt your commitment to honesty after that – but it’s sure not a very good result for your friend.
The larger lesson here is this:
Virtue signaling is most effective when you signal some virtue that other people don’t necessarily agree with. You can’t make a useful virtue signal from something everyone always agrees with, like “serial killers are bad” or you shouldn’t eat babies.” The more dramatic, controversial, and absolute a virtual signal is, the more power it has.
And this causes values and moral principles—even generally sound moral principles, like “honesty is generally good”—to become completely decoupled from real-world consequences.
But of course, holding a nuanced view of the world—considering every situation on its own merits, thinking about edge cases, looking at your moral values with an eye toward seeing how well they fit in each individual circumstance…that takes work. Who has that kind of time?
Especially when it might put you in the crosshairs of someone who enjoys bullying people, and does so with the fire of zeal to purge the heretic and the unbeliever?
So a reasonable, completely supportable moral virtue, like “honesty is generally good,“ becomes an absolutist value.
What? You lied to the killer who asked where your girlfriend was??! You despicable person! I thought you agreed that honesty is good! And now to find out you’e nothing but a disgusting liar, someone who will throw away honesty whenever you find it convenient…what is wrong with you? How can anyone ever trust anything you say? Why should we believe a single word from you, you liar?
This plays out in sex-positive circles with the “believe survivors” trope.
Bumper Sticker Morality
“Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is a fair, decent moral value. We live in societies that have spent far too long not believing when people talk about abuse they’ve suffered, harm they’ve experienced, particularly from people and institutions in power. I mean, great example: Catholic Church. Hell, even law enforcement institutions have a long and revolting history of refusing to take, for example, rape reports seriously.
But somewhere along the way, all moral values must confront the fact that no moral situation is absolute.
“Honesty is good” does not, therefore, mean “do not lie tell your friend’s murderous ex where she’s hiding, even though you know he wants to kill her, because dishonesty is wrong.”
When you reach the point where some moral value becomes more important as a bumper-sticker-sized signal of your virtue than as a guideline for treating others well—Honesty is always good, regardless of circumstance! Dishonesty is bad!—it ceases to be a moral value, instead serving as a justification to bully others (“You lying sack of shit, how dare you show your face among decent, honest folks when you’re such a mewling, festering liar you told a lie to an enraged murderer about where he could find the person he was looking to bury his hatchet in!”).
Any reasonable person will, at least in private, say there’s no such thing as a class of people who should always be believed under all circumstances. “Believe survivors,” like “honesty is good,” is an excellent general moral guideline—as long as you’re alert to the fact that no moral value is ever 100% true in 100% of circumstances. Human beings are messy, and when you create entire classes of people who are never to be doubted, you open the door to someone somewhere exploiting that for gain. “Always believe survivors” is exactly the same as “never believe survivors”—a way to avoid having to do the hard, messy work of evaluating individual people and individual situations. (Who has that kind of time, amirite?)
Stochastic Bullying, Stochastic Terrorism: Power Without Responsibility
As a tool for, you know, living a life that’s respectful of others, zealously defending bumper-sticker morality that brooks no exception, no nuance, no edge cases is a bit rubbish. But where stochastic bullying really shines is as a way of enforcing conformity and obedience to in-group/out-group borders.
Not long ago, I wrote about a bizarre, Twilight-Zone situation where some Internet personalities somehow decided I was running, or profiting from, or organizing, or something, a conference in London. I still have no clue where this notion came from, but someone got it in their head, and wrote about it online, in a This Will Not Stand kind of way, and the next thing you know, the conference organizers were receiving hate mail and threats. It got so bad, the organizers suspended the conference.
Now, this is serious “Jewish space lasers” territory. We’re so far past rationality here, we’ve looped all the way around Bizarro World and ended up in “Democrats secretly run a sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn’t have a basement” land. It shouldn’t really be too hard for someone who hears this story to say ‘hang on, a dude in Portland secretly runs a conference in London that’s been going on for years and how does that work exactly?’
But that’s the thing: Virtue signaling becomes more powerful as it becomes more outlandish. Sure, anyone can say they believe in QAnon, but believing that a secret trafficking ring works from the basement of a building that doesn’t even have a basement shows true commitment to the cause.
And the thing is, the person who started spreading rumors that I secretly run this conference in London never actually said ‘and therefore, you, specifically, should send death threats to the conference organizers.’ That’s how it works.
Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?
Will no one do something about this conference?
It is power without responsibility. It’s a way to accumulate control in a community, enforce boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, and let people know: Don’t be the hero. Charge me and you’ll get shot. Keep your head down and do as I say.
Nobody can take power this way in a subcommunity without everyone else being complicit. It’s hackneyed to say this, but all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for people of principle to do nothing.
But when you feel you have to keep your head down, because stepping out of line targets you for bullying and attack from quarters you cannot anticipate, it becomes a rational choice.
This is a fact. It’s written into your biology. There is a limit, coded into the size and structure of your brain, on the number of people you can form close, personal connections to, or even remember as individuals before they start to blur into faces in a crowd. That is, I think, is one of the things that makes the online world so toxic, though perhaps not in the way you might think.
Before I get into why social media is so toxic, let’s talk about that limit. It’s called Dunbar‘s Number, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The basic idea is there’s a specific, quantifiable number on the close interpersonal connections—not passing acquaintances, not faces in a crowd, but meaningful social interconnections—you can make. People debate exactly what this number is (and some anthropologists have questioned the validity of research that extrapolates from other primates to humans), but the most commonly accepted figure is in the neighborhood of 150 people or so—which tracks nicely with the size of early hunter/gatherer tribes.
That means we all have emotional space for somewhere around 150 people in our inner orbits. Again, these aren’t acquaintances—they’re your family, your friends, your lovers, your confidantes, the people you have a genuinely close connection to. Above this number, people tend to become faces in a crowd. You don’t fundamentally connect with people outside your inner orbit the way you do with people inside your inner orbit. You can’t. Regardless of whether your own personal limit is, 150 people or 200 people or 147 people or whatever, at some point you lose the ability to form independent, differentiable emotional connections. With eight billion humans on the planet, you can’t even remember everyone’s name!
That worked fine when we all lived in small tribes of a couple hundred people at most. Things started getting a little weird when human social groups got bigger than that. We had to invent surrogates for those close personal connections: governments, religions, structures that could impose boundaries on our behavior…because make no mistake, we hold very different standards for how it’s acceptable to treat people inside our personal spheres and outside them.
And that sorta worked for a long time, though at a cost. When you replace individual connections to people you know with abstract bonds with members of your religion or your city-state or your nation—in other words, with a group of people you’ve mostly never met—it becomes easy for people to hijack that apparatus and tell you who to love and who to hate. Instead of your tribe being defined by personal connections, it becomes directed for you from the top down: your in-group and out-group are defined not by people you personally know and trust, but by the hierarchy that directs these abstract groups.
Remember how you’re hard-wired to behave differently toward people within your personal sphere and outside it? Yeah, that. If someone convinces you that all members of your religion or your city-state are inside your sphere and everyone else is outside it, then getting you to trust people you shouldn’t trust, or commit acts of atrocity against people who’ve done you no harm, gets a whole lot easier.
It doesn’t help, too, that when you start dealing with people outside your inner circle, you have to make hasty group generalizations, which means you start judging entire groups of people based on superficial characteristics. So there’s that.
Being Human in an Age of Social Media
If our evolutionary heritage didn’t prepare us for living in groups bigger than a couple hundred people or so, it definitely didn’t prepare us for social media.
There are eight billion of us sharing space on this planet. Eight billion. That’s a number of people literally, not figuratively, impossible to grasp emotionally. We cannot really even imagine eight billion people.
Most of us live in enormous societies several orders of magnitude larger than the hundred and fifty to two hundred our brains evolved to cope with, so we create our own little subcommunities, social circles, networks of family and friends.
Social media gives us an easy, low-friction way to interact with other people. Problem is, interactions on social media feel like in-person interactions, but they aren’t. You’re presenting, and interacting with, carefully curated personas. Social media makes it much easier to curate these personas than it is in person—we choose what we show and what we share. And, importantly, it’s easy for us to hide things.
So we end up feeling like we have genuine connections with people we don’t actually know. We know only a carefully constructed facade, but to our emotional selves, to the parts of us that define our family, our tribe, these connections seem genuine.
Psychologists have a name for this: parasocial relationships. We become invested in people on social media, people who might not actually share a connection with us, who might not even know us at all except as a name on a follower list.
The thing about parasocial relationships is they occupy a slot in our inner sphere, even though they are not, in fact, genuine close relationships.
And that, I think, is a huge part of why the Internet is such a hate machine.
Mass-Produced Synthetic Rage
The Internet is a hate machine, fine-tuned to manufacture outrage in industrial quantities. Part of that is deliberate engineering, of course. Engagement drives revenue. Waving pitchforks and screaming for the heads of the heathens is “engagement.” Outrage sells, so Adam Smith’s ruthless invisible hand has shaped social media into high-efficiency outrage generation machines.
Early pioneers wanted to use the power of this globe-spanning, always-on communications network to bring people together. Looking back, that seems charmingly naïve, though in fairness it wasn’t obvious back then that anger would be more profitable. Who knew?
What happens when you fill up slots in your inner sphere with parasocial relationships—with people you genuinely feel a sincere connection to, but you don’t actually know?
You become easy to manipulate.
You feel a bond to a person you don’t know, whose motives you can never be certain of, who has an entire life lived away from social media. This person is part of your inner circle, and part of that evolutionary heritage I was talking about is that you are predisposed to believe things people in your inner circle tell you. You are descended from a long line of ancestors who were part of a tribe. For our early ancestors, losing their tribe meant death. We are descended from people who survived—the ones who did not get expelled from their tribes. Accepting the values, beliefs, and worldview of the people in your inner circle is wired into your genes.
So when someone who is part of your social media inner circle tells you someone else is a bad person, you’re disposed to believe it without question. When your social media tribe tells you who to hate, you do it. Yes, I mean you. You think you’re far more rational and less tribalistic than all those other people. You’re wrong.
Now consider that in the age of COVID over the past few years, more people are getting more of those social needs met online, and consider the digital generation growing up in a world where parasocial interaction is the norm, and, well, things get weird. How could social media become anything but a hate machine?
And, ironically, spaces that consider themselves “loving” and “welcoming” and “safe” are especially prone to this, because a great deal of in-group/out-group policing is done on the basis of feelings of comfort and safety; if someone tells you that someone else says that so-and-so is a bad person, you want to keep your space loving and safe, right? And it can’t be loving and safe if it has bad people in it, right? There’s only one thing for it: we must lovingly band together to drive out the evil among us.
On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a manipulator
The thing about parasocial interactions is your brain really wasn’t meant for them. You tend, when you interact with someone one or two steps removed, to see only a curated version of them—but at the same time, emotionally, the ancient parts of your brain will respond as if this was a person who’s a member of your family, who you can trust implicitly.
Believe me, that creates some really messed-up opportunities for things to go wrong.
The people you see on social media may have an agenda you’re completely unaware of. As a particularly vivid case, I know of one person who attempted to take over a conference that had been running for many years. She simply tried to walk up and start hosting a new conference using the same name, same trademark, everything. (This sort of thing is more common than you think. There comes a point in the normal development of any subculture or subcommunity when a tipping point is reached; once the community grows to a certain size, it’s easier to make a name for yourself by stealing someone else’s work than by doing the work yourself.)
When her attempted hijacking didn’t succeed, and the conference organizers informed her they would defend their trademark legally if necessary, well…Internet hate machine. She started so many rumors and accusations about the existing conference (each one laughably simple to debunk by itself, but quantity has a quality all its own…where there’s smoke, there must be fire, not someone running around with a smoke pot yelling “Fire! Fire!”, right?), the Internet hate machine did what it does best. The internetverse whipped itself into such a frothing frenzy, people unconnected with anyone remotely related to the conference started sending threats of violence to people scheduled to speak at the conference. It got so bad, the organizers had to cancel.
I might say here that if one person you’ve never met in person but know on the Internet tells you that another person you’ve never met but know on the Internet is a bad person and therefore you should send threats of violence to a whole set of other people you’ve never met but know on the Internet, you’ve completely lost the plot…yet here we are. The thing is, the nature of the Internet and your legacy evolutionary heritage makes this kind of thing feel right. It feels natural. It feels righteous and just.
You are a tribal being. We all are. It’s a fact of our biology. Social media is engineered to produce rage, because rage gathers clicks, and emotions like fear and anger make you less rational. Add that to the fact you’re already inclined to accept people into your inner circle you’ve never met because interactions on social media feel convincingly authentic, and it’s a perfect storm. People can manipulate you and make you feel righteous about it.
None of these problems is unique to the internet, of course, but the parasociality inherent in the Internet makes the problem much worse. And, of course, knowing that the Twitter hordes with the torches and pitchforks might turn them on you if you fail to pick up a torch or a pitchfork and rally to the cause when you’re told to, really doesn’t help.
Don’t be a sucker
What’s the solution?
I don’t know. I wish I did. I’d like to say it’s as easy as fact-checking and being aware, but it’s not. Your fact-checking is emotionally biased by in-group/out-group dynamics. Being aware that you can be manipulated doesn’t help as much as you might think, because awareness is so intellectual and manipulation is so emotional. It’s hard to stop and say “hey, wait a minute” when what you’re being told feels right. That feeling is exactly the Achilles’ heel I’m talking about.
So yeah, don’t be a sucker, but that requires constant vigilance, and the ability to go against the grain of the pitchfork-wielding mob. A lot of folks just plain aren’t prepared to do that.
So I don’t necessarily have a solution, but I will leave you with this:
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 1: I made a homebrew diving bell when I was a kid. My parents moved to Florida when I was 14, and our house had a swimming pool. I hate being wet, and I don’t know how to swim, but I love making things, so when I found a big 12-volt air compressor at a surplus store, I was like “I know! I’ll make a diving bell!” I cut a slot in a 5-gallon pickle bucket, hot-glued a flexible bit of plastic over it, ran a hose from the compressor to the bucket, put a 12-volt car battery on the edge of the pool, and went diving. I didn’t think about the fact that the air always smelled of oil, meaning I was probably inhaling some nasty hydrocarbons, nor about the fact that if I somehow passed out or something I’d probably die.
Speaking of not liking to be wet, I have a condition called “congenital thermal allodynia,” inherited from my mother, which means I perceive changes in temperature as pain.
I also have a weird mutation inherited from my mother that mens I’m highly resistant to local anesthetics in the lidocaine family. My mother has it even worse—she’s essentially immune to most local anesthetics. This makes visiting the dentist about as fun as you might imagine.
I really love cats. Somehow, they know. It’s hard for me to go anywhere without any cat that sees me wanting to come over and be my friend. I was once at a client’s home office installing a new computer. My client’s cat kept watching me from the door. My client was like “She won’t come any closer, it took two years before she let my husband pet her.” By the time I was done with the install, the cat was curled up asleep in my lap. (Zaiah says it’s because I interact with cats as equals, not animals or pets.)
I lost my virginity in a threesome.
I’ve never been in a monogamous relationship—not once in my entire life.
I took two dates to my high school senior prom.
I’m straight, which I consider a bug, not a feature. I resent the fact that half of the human sexual experience is forever closed to me. If there were a magic pill that could make straight people bisexual, I’d take it in a heartbeat.
I started programming computers in 1977.
I saw Star Wars on opening night, also in 1977.
I’ve had a vasectomy. I got it in 2001. I had an appointment to go to the diagnostic lab to make sure I was shooting blanks on…September 11, 2001. Yes, seriously. The lab was tiny, with only a small waiting room that didn’t even have a television. A member of the staff had brought in a little battery powered TV and set it up on the reception counter, and a bunch of people—staff and patients—were crowded around watching news about the World Trade Center attacks. It made it really hard to produce the sample.
I design sex toys as a hobby. I make them in a 3D rendering program on my computer, print molds on a 3D printer, and pour silicone into the molds.
I own a patent—US 10265240—on a sensor-equipped strapon that stimulates the wearer so that the wearer can feel touch on the strapon.
For years I was into black and white photography, seriously enough that I had a darkroom in my house. I often asked random people I met if they’d let me photograph them. The answer, more often than not, was yes.
I have seven years of university but only have an undergraduate degree. That said, things I’ve written have been used as teaching materials in graduate-level courses, and I’ve been cited by academics. That’s…flattering and also frustrating.
I only have an undergraduate degree because I changed major five times in my first six years of university. Everything interests me. (Well, everything except sports. And knitting.)
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 2: I used to free-climb buildings as a hobby. I started in my first year at university and kept doing it through my mid-30s.
At one point in my life I was so heavily into aikido I did a six-week aikido intensive that involved a study session and two mat sessions a day, seven days a week. I belonged to a dojo in Sarasota for years.
I used to own two PDP-11s, an 11/03 and an 11/24. I set them up in my college dorm room, which was a bit…problematic because the power draw caused some weird problems with the dorm electrical supply. (We discovered the circuit breakers in our dorm were defective when we tripped the branch circuit that fed power to the entire dorm.) Later, I moved them into the first apartment I shared with my ex-wife. She called them “Washer” and “Dryer” because they lived in the utility room. We didn’t have a washer and dryer, but hey, we had two PDPs!
As a kid, before my family moved to Florida, I lived in a tiny town called Venango in Nebraska. When we lived there, the town had 242 people in it. The entire school, kindergarten through high school, had fewer than 50 students.
In Nebraska, I was super into model rocketry as a hobby. I designed and built my own rockets, including some exotics like boost gliders.
I was once heavily involved in the small-press ‘zine scene, in the early 90s. I helped publish a number of underground magazines, including Mythagoras, The Caffeine Quarterly, and Xero Magazine.
One of my websites, xeromag dot com, started out life as the site for Xero Magazine. The magazine hasn’t published an issue in twenty years or so, and the site has grown into a weird mix of photography, kink, philosophy, and other stuff.
I once set myself on fire during a bottle rocket fight with a bunch of friends. (Nobody ever said I was terribly smart about such things.) Burned my favorite T-shirt.
I have a pattern of running into famous people by accident…literally. I ran into Sam Walton at a Walmart. (I was buying a case of oil for my car, which had a leak. He was inspecting the store. I came around the end of the aisle and walked right into him. Bam, bottles of oil everywhere.) I ran into James “The Amazing” Randi at a hotel. (I was carrying a sewing machine. He was coming off the elevator. I ran right into him and almost dropped the sewing machine on his foot. He handled it with fantastic grace and humor.) I ran into William Shatner at a convention. (I was leaving the bathroom, he was coming in, neither of us was watching where we were going, wham. He’s shorter than I thought.)
Even though I’m not religious, I love old churches. I’ve attended Mass at Notre Dame and at St. Peter’s in Vatican City. I’ve been to the Church on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia; climbed the 409 steps to the roof of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Gdańsk, Poland; been atop the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland; sexted in Old North Church in Boston, the place where the Railroad headquarters is hidden in Fallout 4; and done a cosplay photo shoot in Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire, England.
When I was in elementary school, I wrote a letter to the President, suggesting the idea of putting cameras on kites and flying them over cities to look for criminals. I reasoned, naively, that if people knew there were cameras all around, they wouldn’t commit crimes. I got back a polite letter on White House stationery thanking me for my idea.
Speaking of kites: When I was a kid, I was also into kite fighting. (You use dual-string kites with a sharp spar on the nose and powdered glass on the string to try to destroy, cripple, or cut the lines of your opponent’s kites.) Under most kite fighting rules, if you capture an opponent’s kite by tangling and then cutting its strings, you keep the captured kite. I decorated my bedroom wall with captured kites.
I love dancing. Goth/industrial and fusion blues, mostly. I’m not terribly good at it, but I love it.
I took a course in chess theory in university. It didn’t help. I’m still a rubbish player.
Perhaps surprisingly, I have a bit of a nudity taboo. I am deeply uncomfortable being naked around people who aren’t intimate partners—and sometimes even then. My partners know this about me and love pressing that button—for example, by ‘making’ me go nude in places like public dungeons or BDSM conventions.
One of my websites, the More Than Two site, is archived by the Library of Congress as a site of significant literary, cultural, or historical significance.
My favorite city in the world is Tallinn, in Estonia.
I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Adolph Hitler. My grandmother came to the US from Germany after the Nazis rose to power, and met my grandfather here.
I’ve been skydiving. I found it boring. A couple minutes of unpleasant wind in your face and then several minutes of “here I am, hanging under the canopy…look, that’s the ground down there…still hanging here…look, the ground is a little bit closer now, doot doot doo…”
There was a time in my life I could code in Z-80 Assembly about as fast as I could type.
I once carried a duffel bag full (as in completely full to the top) of dildos through TSA. No, they weren’t mine. I was carrying them for a friend. A duffel bag full of dildos weighs way more than you think it does. Silicone is heavy.
I was once involuntarily and non-consensually dosed with methamphetamine at a swinger convention. One of the worst nights of my life. Meth sucks. If I live to be two centuries old I will never understand why people take that shit voluntarily, knowing the ride they’re signing up for.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 3: Driving down Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa one day, I hit a small but heavy object that fell off the car in front of me. I still don’t know what it was, but it was maybe baseball-sized and heavy enough to destroy both driver-side tires and put a huge dent in the front rim. Amazingly, my car (a Honda del Sol) didn’t even swerve out of its lane.
Whilst I was in the shop getting the car fixed after that, I sat in the waiting room reading Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin. An elderly lesbian couple in their 70s sat down next to me and one of them started talking to me about how Anaïs Nin was her favorite writer. The whole thing was adorable.
I play chess (badly) and pool (badly). I used to be able to shoot darts reasonably well—-well enough that I had a rather nice set of tungsten soft tips I would bring with me to the local biker bar to shoot almost every weekend—but those days are gone.
I am a shy extrovert.
I started writing on the Web in 1997. Back then, the world was a quite different place; you had to pay quite a bit more for web hosting, and also pay for bandwidth.
I created one of the first polyamory sites on the web. Montel Williams did one of the first mass-media talk show episodes about polyamory, a fact I learned when I woke up to find my site flattened and a huge honking bill for bandwidth from my hosting provider.
I met my co-author at an orgy in a castle in France. I wrote the first paragraph of what became the first novel we wrote together on her naked back at a different orgy in Lincolnshire.
I love inventing wildly impractical things. For my girlfriend Maxine’s birthday party, I connected a single-chip EEG to a Ruben’s tube (a tube with a row of fire jets along it that change in response to sound), so that you could change the patterns of fire just by thinking about it. I did not, sadly, think to get video.
I used to have a darkroom in my house, back in the day when I was into film photography.
I wrote a video game for the TRS-80, Master Blaster, with a high school friend. It was a sort of vertical Space Invaders/Galaga-style shooting game, only you move up and down along the left hand edge of the screen rather than back and forth along the bottom. I released it free on TRS-80 BBS systems. It…wasn’t very popular.
I wrote a terminal emulator program for the TRS-80 that emulated a Televideo 920c terminal, which I used to log into the DECsystem-20 from my dorm room during my first year at university. I released it for free on TRS-80 BBS systems, and unexpectedly got a rather nice check in the mail one day from a guy who’d found it and installed it on systems where he worked. He included a letter that explained that he had a TRS-80 and a terminal for accessing the mainframe on every desk at his place of business, and the emulator program let him get rid of all the terminals.
I am completely heterosexual. I think that’s unfortunate, because I really like sex, and being stubbornly straight takes half the human sexual experience off the table. If someone invented a magic pill that would let you decide your sexual orientation, I’d choose to be bi.
My first car was a Volkswagen Bug, and I loved it so much my third car was also a Volkswagen Bug. At one point I could drop the engine out of a Bug by myself in under 15 minutes. I still remember the VIN of my second Bug (1122609696),
I once participated in a threesome in a van on a train under the English Channel.
When I was a kid, my parents knew I loved sci-fi (Star Trek was my favorite TV show, Star Wars my favorite movie), so when I was like 12 or so they took me to see Alien, thinking it was just another sci-fi movie like Star Wars. I had nightmares about the alien from Alien for the next 35 years. (That’s not an exaggeration.)
Despite that, Aliens is my second-favorite movie…
…after The Matrix…
…with The Princess Bride in third place.
I once helped the FBI build a case against a group of computer hackers responsible for a piece of malware called W32/Zlob, after I wrote a blog post about a large-scale hack of an Internet hosting company called iPower Web, as a result of which I received a rather nice reward.
For many years, when I lived in Tampa, I had a pet snake, a boa constrictor named Eris.
I drink a lot of tea. A LOT of tea. I buy it by the case. I don’t drink as much as my crush/co-author Eunice or my girlfriend Maxine, but I drink a lot of tea for a normal person who isn’t British, and even quite a lot by British standards.
I got into model rocketry as a kid when a friend of my father’s had his son go off to college. The son decided not to keep up with rocketry, so he gifted me all his equipment: launch pad, launch controllers, engines, parts, everything. I was totally blown away; I couldn’t believe someone would just give away all their gear like that. Years later, after my family moved to Florida and I got out of model rocketry, I gave all my stuff—launch pads, controllers, engines, materials, everything—to a neighborhood kid.
I spin fire. I took beanbag poi and fire poi on the European book tour. We went out one evening in Edinburgh and I thought about taking my poi, then said nah, what are the odds of randomly coming across people spinning poi? Walking through a park, we came across—you guessed it—a group of people spinning poi.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 4: Me, my best friend, and his girlfriend at the time were out in my Volkswagen Bug in the middle of nowhere, where my friend was trying to teach me the particularly tricky heel/toe/emergency brake maneuver required to do a fast turn using the emergency brake. I went into the turn way, way, way, way too fast, and so the Bug promptly went up on two wheels and slid sideways down the road about 60 feet. (We measured later by the two black skidmarks I left in the asphalt.) It ripped both tires on the passenger side right off the rim and trashed both rims. The only reason we didn’t roll over is my friend’s girlfriend, who was sitting in the back seat, shrieked “We’re all going to die!” and flung herself against the high side of the car, which caused us to tip over back onto all four wheels again.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 5: Okay, so a VW is an air and oil cooled engine with a large vertical fan shroud that sits on top of the engine and blows air downward. There are two hoses that come out of the fan shroud, go over theat exchangers, and blow into the passenger compartment, to give you heat when it’s cold. So, these hoses are exactly the same size as the business end of a Weber aftermarket carburetor…can you see where this is going? I thought, hey, if I attach one of those hoses to the air intake of the carburetor I’ll have a cheap, easy ram-air system, like a poor man’s turbocharger! Look how clever I am! If you know anything about cars, you’re probably cringing at the thought of what happened next…and you’re not wrong. Suffice it to say I destroyed the engine in dramatic fashion.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive Part 6: Another of my early cars was a 1977 Honda Civic CVCC. It had a weird, compound-ignition engine that got about 40 miles to the gallon. I modified the hell out of it—put a Holley 4-barrel carb in place of the weird 3-barrel (yes, seriously) CVCC carb, put in a racing advance distributor, did some other stuff. My best friend—same one—and I were on Interstate 75 late one evening. The road was basically deserted, so I decided to see how fast we could go. It took a long time, but the speedometer kept creeping up and up until it hit the peg, and then the tachometer kept creeping up and up past that. The car started shaking so badly the door windows were rattling in their frames and the steering wheel was vibrating like it was trying to throw my hands clean off it. What followed was a conversation between Tim and I that I will never forget: “Hey Franklin!” “Yeah?” “Are we really going 140 miles an hour?” “Yeah.” “That’s pretty cool.” “Yeah!” “Hey Franklin!” “Yeah?” “Back off a little, will you?”
When I started using America Online in 1992 or so, I used the name “TacitR.” (I still have that name.) It comes from “Tacit Rainbow,” a handle I used on old-school BBS systems. “Tacit Rainbow” was an old, top-secret military project, that was canceled before it produced anything, intended to make loitering munitions—semi-autonomous hybrid cruise-missile-like things that could be fired over an area, where they would remain, circling in the air, until they spotted and recognized a target, which they would then autonomously destroy. Didn’t go anywhere, but I liked the way those two words sound together, so I started going by Tacit Rainbow online. Several years after I started using that name on AOL, a guy messaged me out of the blue to say “I hate to intrude, but does the R in your name TacitR stand for Rainbow?” When I said yes, he was like “Oh, when did you work on the project?” I explained that I didn’t, and he said “Ah, that’s too bad. I was one of the engineers working on that at Northrop in the 80s.” We had a really interesting conversation after that.
Years ago, I flew out to London to visit my partner Maxine. She was living in a big house with an extended poly network—several of her other partners and their partners and so on. She came out on the tube to pick me up at the airport. The first thing she did when she saw me past customs was tied my wrists together, blindfolded me with a polka-dotted sash, and led me back to the subway bound and blindfolded. On the ride to her house on the subway, she kept whispering filthy things in my ear she wanted to do to me. (I still have a photo of me sitting on the subway blindfolded with my wrists bound together. As soon as we got to the house, she shoved me against the wall, yanked down my pants, and held me pinned against the wall while she went down on me. People use the expression “mind-blowing” far too often for sex, but man, it was mind-blowing.
I went to a public dungeon called the Egyptian Club many years ago with one of my partners, where we did a really fun flogging scene. When we were finished, a rather lovely young woman walked up to me and asked if I’d flog her. Before I could answer, her girlfriend started yelling at her. They had a huge argument right there in the club that ended with the girlfriend dragging the woman who had asked me out of the place.
I wrote a computer sex game called Onyx, which is still available, though I haven’t updated it in years. (It’s 32-bit, so it won’t work on modern Macs, but it still runs fine on Windows.)
in 1987, I got kicked out of a Radio Shack because I went in looking for a radio controlled toy car I could tear apart to make an RC vibrator. I asked the guy at the store to show me the RC cars. He asked what kind I was looking for. I said “I don’t care, I’m just going to take the radio out of it to use it for something else.” He refused to sell it to me and threw me out because he said “I think you’re going to make a bomb.”
When my ex-wife and I first moved in together, we got a land line that used to belong to someone named Grace Rodriguez. From the calls, we assume she was likely a drug dealer. For the first six months we had that number, we would get all kinds of bizarre calls at all hours of the day and night looking for Grace. Over time the calls tapered off, but we were still getting them occasionally three years later. About two years after we got the number, we got a phone call from a man looking for Grace Rodriguez. I answered the phone and did what I always did: “Grace Rodriguez has not had this number for years.” Most people said “okay, sorry,” and hung up. This guy started sobbing into the phone and yelling “I know she’s there, man, I know she’s there! You gotta let me talk to her! Please, I gotta talk to Grace, man! Why won’t you let me talk to her? I gotta talk to Grace, man!”
As a young kid, I used to plant “bombs” in my sister’s room. They were simple things: a 9-volt battery, an old-fashioned flashcube, and some sort of trigger, usually as simple as a clothespin with jaws wrapped in aluminum foil and a bit of paper between. I’d put them in her dresser, her jewelry box, wherever I could hide them, so she’d open the dresser or box or whatever and foom! The flashcube would flash in her face.
I never even tried any recreational drugs at all (apart from alcohol) until I was 46 years old.
Members of my extended family are part of the Quiverfull cult. I haven’t spoken to them in decades.
Timothy and I (yes, same Timothy) once hot-wired a grader. Turns out they have very simple ignition switches. We’d been out in the middle of the night driving my Bug around, as we were wont to do, screaming down a road that was under construction so had no traffic, when we went flying right off the part of the road that was finished and sank the car up to the axles in mud. We tried for hours to get it loose, but couldn’t free it, so Tim got this idea to try to hotwire one of the graders parked by the side of the road and use it to pull the car out. Getting the grader started was easy. We couldn’t figure out how to work the rather weird, cumbersome clutch/shift mechanism, though, so we were only able to move it about ten feet. We gave up and spent hours walking back to town. Came back out with friends the next night at midnight to find that the people working on the road had lifted the car up, packed the dirt around it, and set it back down, so it was sitting high and dry surrounded by a sea of mud. I still wonder if that wasn’t their vengeance for us moving the grader.
I’ve done a workshop at a conference on building siege weapons. I was at the conference wandering around with friends looking for something to do. We found a pile of scrap wood by a dumpster and used it to build a small trebuchet with an eight-foot throwing arm, which we played with for the rest of the convention, flinging glowsticks and a baseball and even someone’s little movie camera wrapped up in T-shirts and duct tape. The following year, the convention organizers invited me back to do a workshop on building a trebuchet.
The first date I ever went on with my ex-wife, we drove my car to the middle of nowhere in a place called Lehigh Acres in Florida. We were making out when a tiny, scrawny, and very dirty kitten jumped through the car window and landed in her lap. We ended up adopting him and named him Goblin He hated everyone on earth except us and my parents.
I used to have a close friend named Carey; we even lived together for a brief time. She drove a Fiat X1/9, a slick little 2-seat targa top sports car. We went out to a bar one night to shoot pool. The weather was beautiful, so we had the top off. As we were pulling into the parking lot, the local TV news anchor came staggering out of the bar, leaned over the car, and started making throwing-up noises. She turned her head at the last possible instant and puked all over the ground right next to the car, but fortunately not in the car.
Carey and I once drove from St. Louis to do laundry. We had a long weekend. We didn’t have a washer when we lived together, so we packed all our laundry in my car to go to the laundromat and just sort of…kept driving. We made it to St. Louis, did our laundry, turned around, and drove back.
My favorite command line operating system is TOPS-20 for the DECsystem-20.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive part 7: One of my VW Bugs left me stranded in a parking lot one night when the fuel pump failed. So, right there in the parking lot, with only the tools and materials I had on hand, I tried to rig up a gravity-feed fuel system that would at least get me home. You can probably guess where this is going. Yes, I set the engine on fire.
I once bought a secondhand Apple Lisa with a bad video display and an Apple Profile hard drive from a computer shop for $100. The shop owner gave them an estimate to troubleshoot the problem and they told him to just keep it, so he sold it to me. The problem turned out to be incredibly simple to fix, literally a 5-minute job: the connector had come off the end of the picture tube. That’s it. When I fired it up, I discovered it had been used by an IT company that did work for banks. There were a bunch of LisaDraw files with network diagrams for several bank offices, and the network diagrams for every one of that bank’s ATMs in Tampa.
I was introduced to the band Disturbed while watching porn on a friend’s laptop while we sat in the porn room of a public dungeon. We were ignoring all the porn on dozens of screens around us because she wanted to watch something on her laptop, and I don’t remember anything about the porn except it used the Disturbed album The Sickness as the background music, and I was like “holy shit, what is this music, it’s awesome!” I bought the album on CD the next day.
Speaking of porn: I write literary porn, I’ve been on set when porn is being filmed, I have friends who are porn performers, and yet…I don’t have much of a taste for porn, and rarely watch it.
I haven’t even watched the porn one of my partners has performed in. I kinda sometimes feel like a bad boyfriend for that.
I’ve attempted to learn to play flute and clarinet, and failed dismally at it.
I’ve attempted to learn Latin, French, and German, and failed at that, too.
I don’t understand integration by partial fractions. I’ve had multiple professors try to teach me in multiple calculus classes at multiple universities and it’s just never clicked. I see someone using partial fractions and I feel like a dog staring at a stock market report—nothing about it makes sense to me.
I have a favorite virus (of the biological variety, not the computer variety): polydnavirus.
I have such poor attention to detail, in the first version of this list, number 92 was a repeat.
I worked for many years doing prepress professionally. I started using Photoshop at version 1.0.2 and Illustrator with Illustrator 88.
I invented one of the world’s first Internet controlled sex toys, Symphony. This was before USB was a thing, so the Symphony plugged into your computer’s headphone jack and was controlled by pulses of sound. I designed the hardware and wrote the software. It…wasn’t a success.
I am allergic to bee stings.
If I were a spacecraft from the Culture novels, I’d be the Limited Systems Vehicle Let’s See What Happens.
I am not a leader. I have incredibly, almost impossibly poor leadership skills. I am so bad at telling other people what to do, and not only disinterested in but actively repulsed by controlling anyone else (in any sense except consensual, limited, and mutually negotiated kink), that I can’t even do it in video games. My raiding guild in World of Warcraft tried to put me in charge of a mythic+ 5-man dungeon run and it was a disaster. Whatever it is that lets people take control, I don’t have it.
I am fascinated by creodonts, the early, less sophisticated, and now completely extinct forerunners to modern carnivores (in the literal sense of order Carnivora, not “meat-eating animals” generally).
I love rum, especially light spiced rum. Lamb’s Black Sheep is one of life’s sublime pleasures, though it is, alas, almost impossible to find anywhere near where I live.
It’s Amazing I’m Still Alive part 8: I was once out exploring rural Florida with my friend Timothy (of course) when we found an abandoned quarry of some sort with a significant drop to water. I drove along the edge of the quarry for a bit, looking down into it wondering how deep the water went, when Tim was all like “Franklin, drive straight, don’t speed up, don’t slow down, don’t turn the wheel.” So I did. I was all like “what’s up?” He said “look behind us.” The edge of the quarry had crumbled and there was only one tire track behind us.
As I type this, Elon Musk says the release of true full self-driving cars is perhaps months away. Leaving aside his…notable overoptimism, this would arguably be among the crowning achievement of computer science so far.
Yes, even more than going to the moon. Going to the moon required remarkably little in the way of computer science—orbital mechanics are complicated, sure, but not that complicated, and there are few unexpected pedestrians twixt hither and yon.
We are moving into a world utterly dominated by computers. And yet…there’s far too little attention, I think, paid to the ethical implications of that.
Probably the biggest ethical issue I see in computer science right now concerns training sets for machine learning.
I don’t mean machine learning like self-driving cars, though that’s a monstrous problem of its own—the thing about ML systems is they’re basically black boxes that most definitively do NOT see the world the way we do, so they can become confused by adversarial inputs, like this strange sticker that makes a Tesla see a stop sign as a Speed Limit 45 sign:
And of course ownership of these enormous ML systems opens whole cans, plural, of worms just by itself. If you use terabytes of public domain data to train a proprietary ML system, what responsibility do you have to make it available to the people who produced your training data, and what liability do you have when your system goes wrong?
And of course deepfake software can produce photos and video of you in a place you’ve never been hanging out with people you don’t know saying things you’ve never said, and make it all totally believable. Look for that to cause trouble soon.
But those are just fringe problems, minor ethical quibbles compared to the elephant in the room: bias in data sets.
Legal societies are putting more and more reliance on ML systems. Police use machine learning for facial recognition (and now, gait recognition, recognizing people by the way they walk instead of their facial features—yes that’s a thing).
Militaries use facial recognition in weapons platforms. Right now they don’t rely in it, but use it as an adjunct to more traditional intelligence, but the day is coming when foreign military targets will be designated entirely by things like facial recognition systems.
Problem is, those ML systems tend to be racist AF.
I’m not kidding.
ML systems rely on training with positively gargantuan training data sets. You train a machine to recognize faces by feeding it millions—or, if you can, tens or hundreds of millions—of pictures of people’s faces.
The researchers who define and build these systems tend to turn to the Internet for their training data, trolling Internet social media sites with bot software that hoovers up all the photos it can find for training data.
Let’s ignore for a moment the copyright implications. Let’s ignore the ethical issues of treating people’s property as fodder for surveillance systems. Let’s just quietly ignore all those ethical problems so we can talk about racism.
People who post lost of photos on the Internet that get scooped up to train ML systems aren’t an even demographic slice of humanity. They tend to have more money than average, be Western Europeans or North Americans, and tend to be white.
That means ML systems to do things like facial recognition are trained on data sets that are overwhelmingly…white faces.
And that means these systems—even commercial systems now deployed and used by police—suck at identifying black or Asian faces.
Like sometimes really suck.
Like, as of 2018, commercial facial recognition systems had a recognition failure rate on white male faces of 0.2%, and a failure rate on black female faces of more than 22%.
If that isn’t ringing alarm bells in your head, you’re not fully comprehending the magnitude of the problem.
Here’s a rather frightening quote:
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that Amazon’s Rekognition software wrongly identified 28 members of Congress as people who had previously been arrested. It disproportionately misidentified African-Americans and Latinos.
Cancel culture isn’t what a lot of folks think it is.
You can’t reasonably address the notion of what “cancel culture” is until you first address what it isn’t. Cancel culture is not saying “I don’t like the way that company does business, so I’m not going to shop there.” Cancel culture isn’t “I don’t like what that person did, so I’m not going to watch her movies.” Cancel culture isn’t even “I don’t like what that company or that person did, so I’m going to tell others how I feel about them.”
All those things are simply you making your own choices. No company is entitled to your money; you’re not taking something away from a corporation that rightfully deserves it by not shopping there. No movie star is entitled to you seeing their movies. No TV comedian is entitled to have you watch their shows. No author is entitled to have you read their books.
Cancel culture, if we are to be intellectually honest, is something else. Cancel culture is the idea that someone or some company did (or you think they did) something wrong, so you aren’t going to patronize them, and you are going to try to force other people not to patronize them either.
Probably the classic example of cancel culture in United States history was McCarthyism, where the government used political witch hunts to force people out of their livelihoods because someone said their brother overheard their hairdresser telling someone else they might be Communist.
Anyone who stood by someone accused of Communism was also branded a Communist. Anyone who defended someone accused of Communism was also driven out of their jobs. Anyone who stood up and said “hey, wait a minute…” was branded a traitor and publicly hounded.
The most dramatic recent example of cancel culture was probably what happened to the Dixie Chicks, who incited the wrath of right-wingers by criticizing the Iraq war.
Many people stopped buying their albums. That’s not cancel culture.
However, they also demanded radio stations stop playing their music. They stalked and harassed managers of radio stations that played their music. They sent death threats to radio DJs who played their music. They phoned firebomb threats to venues that hosted their concerts.
That’s cancel culture.
Cancel culture is not “I will not patronize this person.” Cancel culture is “I will make sure nobody else patronizes this person.”
There are a lot of moving parts to cancel culture; while it predates the Internet (and possibly human civilization), the Internet has made it a flash phenomenon, able to incite enormous fury at the slightest breath.
And while in the past it has frequently been dominated by the political right—I laugh every time an American conservative accuses liberals of “cancel culture,” given the Dixie Chicks thing and the Starbucks thing, cancel culture is neither a left thing nor a right thing. Folks of all political persuasions do it.
Some of the key elements of cancel culture include:
Mass outrage. “Look what they have done! They have criticized our President/sold us out to Commies/said a bad thing/whatever! Outrage!!!” Often, the outrage comes with scanty supporting evidence, and frequently it’s presented with the most emotionally laden spin possible.
Appeal to popular narratives. Narratives are powerful. Human beings are a storytelling species; we understand the world through stories. The stories we tell ourselves—”the government is bad and trying to harm me,” “men are abusers; women are victims,” “nothing an opposing politician says is ever true,” “gay men are pedophiles”—shape our understanding and perception of the world. Stories we hear that fit our narratives tend to be believed without question. Stories that contradict our narratives tend to be rejected without consideration.
These two things often work in synergy. Something that contradicts or violates a narrative we accept will often generate a disproportionate emotional response…not only because it introduces cognitive dissonance, but also because these narratives are:
Tribal markers. The narratives we accept become the way we tell in-groups from out-groups. They are, in a literal sense, virtue signaling and identity politics; the people who believe the same narratives are ‘us,’ while those who reject our narratives are ‘them.’
A clearly defined Good Guy, clearly defined Bad Guy, and clearly defined crime—often, a crime against whatever values once made the Bad Guy a Good Guy. In the political right, this tends to be defiance of authority figures the Right accepts (President Bush, Donald Trump); in the political left, this tends to be perception of or accusation of sexual or social impropriety.
This is why the US left and US right accuse one another of “cancel culture” but don’t see what they themselves do as “cancel culture.” We didn’t cancel the Dixie Chicks; we responded to their unacceptable disrespect of our President! We didn’t cancel that comedian; we responded to defend disadvantaged groups from his attack!
Targeting not only of the person being canceled, but anyone nearby. Cancel culture is, by its nature, an attempt to coerce everyone into shunning the person or entity being canceled. The best way to do this? Target anyone who stands by that person or entity. Doing this sends a clear and unmistakeable message: Defend the person we are canceling and we will ruin you, too. People like to think of themselves as upstanding moral entities who will do the right thing under pressure. Threaten someone’s livelihood or reputation and I guarantee, guarantee, the overwhelming majority of those who think of themselves as good, stand-up people will fold like wet cardboard. There’s no percentage in having your own reputation ruined and your own livelihood destroyed for the sake of someone else.
Intolerance of dissent. This same targeting happens to people who say “hold up a second, are you really sure this is what you say it is? Are you certain this person did what you think they did? Should we hear from this person?” Reminding someone in the throes of a full-fledged righteous wrath that stories have more than one side invites you to be cast out, set on fire, and nuked from orbit.
Rejection of nuance. Cancel culture thrives on self-righteousness. The people who engage in canceling truly, absolutely, 100% believe they are truly, absolutely 100% right. They truly believe they are on the side of the angels, casting out unutterable darkness itself. The idea that there might be anything other than a purely good side and a purely evil side lets the air out of that self-righteousness, and that invites in feelings of shame and guilt.
The trouble with all of this is it allows for no self-reflection and once started, cannot be recalled. The people who phoned bomb threats to Dixie Chicks venues continue, to this very day, to believe that what they did was right…because once you’ve taken that step, how can you sleep at night if you tell yourself ‘no, actually, I was over the top, I shouldn’t have done that’? Once you’ve accused something of some wrongdoing, even if on some level you know it isn’t true, you can’t take it back without the risk of that same outrage machine turning on you; you have to keep going.
In 1937, Winston Churchill wrote:
Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.
He was talking about populism, but where populism is the politics of human tribalism writ large, cancel culture is the politics of human tribalism writ small, and the same idea applies. When you’ve saddled up that tiger, you don’t dare dismount lest it stop eating your enemies and eat you instead.
So what does this have to do with political correctness?
“Politically correct” is a fudge phrase. It’s like “respect” that way.
Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”
and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”
So when you hear the word “respect” in a political conversation, that should raise the small hairs on the back of your neck. Odds are good someone’s about to pull a lingusitic switcheroo on you, and if you don’t pay attention, you’re gonna get snookered.
Sometimes people use “politically correct” to mean “treating other people with decency and compassion” and sometimes people use “politically correct” to mean “adhering to a rigid dogmatic orthodoxy.”
And sometimes people will go into a conversation using it the first way, and when you agree you think that’s a fine idea, they’ll point at you and say “See! You’re just trotting out your identity-politics dogmatism!”
And then whatever idea you’d been advocating gets dismissed as empty virtue signaling.
It’s easy, oh so very easy, to pick up the torch and the pitchfork when you hear something that presses your emotional buttons. And yes, you do have buttons, and so do I, and so does everyone.
Outrage is the enemy of reason. It’s easy to get swept up in the righteous fury of outrage. I’ve done it. I struggle to name anyone who hasn’t. That outrage makes you a tool, a weapon in someone else’s hands…and sickeningly often, if you scratch the surface of justifiable moral outrage over some clear and obvious moral wrongdoing, you’ll find something cheap and tawdry beneath.
Something like money. Or influence. Or political power.
The irony is that political correctness of the first sort—compassion, empathy, a sincere desire to see things from many perspectives, a rejection of the easy and convenient narrative—is actually the antidote to cancel culture, which rests on a foundation of political correctness of the second sort.
But political correctness of the second sort feels better. Picking up the torch and the pitchfork feels good. You feel like you’re in the right. You feel like a superhero. You feel like you’re riding into battle against evil itself. And best of all, you can do it easily, from home, without risking anything!
Funny thing about that. If what you’re doing makes you feel heroic without risking anything…maybe it’s not as heroic as you think it is.
I’ve been thinking a lot about machine learning lately. Take a look at these images:
These people do not exist. They’re generated by a neural net program at thispersondoesnotexist.com, a site that uses Nvidia’s StyleGAN to generate images of faces.
StyleGAN is a generative adversarial network, a neural network that was trained on hundreds of thousands of photos of faces. The network generated images of faces, which were compared with existing photos by another part of the same program (the “adversarial” part). If the matches looked good, those parts of the network were strengthened; if not, they were weakened. And so, over many iterations, its ability to create faces grew.
If you look closely at these faces, there’s something a little…off about them. They don’t look quiiiiite right, especially where clothing is concerned (look at the shoulder of the man in the upper left).
There are ways you can spot StyleGAN generated faces. For example, the people at This Person Does Not Exist found that the eyes tended to look weird, detached from the faces, so the researchers fixed the problem in a brute-force but clever way: they trained the Style GAN to put the eyes in the same place on every face, regardless of which way it was turned. Faces generated at TPDNE always have the major features in the same place: eyes the same distance apart, nose in the same place, and so on.
Okay, so what happens if you train a GAN on images that aren’t faces?
That turns out to be a lot harder. The real trick there is tagging the images, so the GAN knows what it’s looking at. That way you can, for example, teach it to give you a building when you ask it for a building, a face when you ask it for a face, and a cat when you ask it for a cat.
And that’s exactly what the folks at WOMBO have done. The WOMBO Dream app generates random images from any words or phrases you give it.
And I do mean “any” words or phrases.
It can generate cityscapes:
On and on, endless varieties of images…I can play with it for hours (and I have!).
And believe me when I say it can generate images for anything you can think of. I’ve tried to throw things at it to stump it, and it’s always produced something that looks in some way related to whatever I’ve tossed its way.
War on Christmas? It’s got you covered:
I’ve even tried “Father Christmas encased in Giger sex tentacle:”
Not a bad effort, all things considered.
But here’s the thing:
If you look at these images, they’re all emotionally evocative; they all seem to get the essence of what you’re aiming at, but they lack detail. The parts don’t always fit together right. “Dream” is a good name: the images the GAN produces are hazy, dreamlike, insubstantial, without focus or particular features. The GAN clearly does not understand anything it creates.
And still, if artist twenty years ago had developed this particular style the old-fashioned way, I have no doubt that he or she or they would have become very popular indeed. AI is catching up to human capability in domains we have long thought required some spark of human essence, and doing it scary fast.
I’ve been chewing on what makes WOMBO Dream images so evocative. Is it simply promiscuous pattern recognition? The AI creating novel patterns we’ve never seen before by chewing up and spitting out fragments of things it doesn’t understand, causing us to dig for meaning where there isn’t any?
Given how fast generative machine learning programs are progressing, I am confident I will live to see AI-generated art that is as good as anything a human can do. And yet, I still don’t think the machines that create it will have any understanding of what they’re creating.
I have written before on a couple of occasions about the Fermi paradox. To recap, the idea is: if life is plentiful throughout the universe and there are many sapient, industrial species, where is the evidence? The sky should be filled with radio waves and other telltale evidence.
Not necessarily because they’re trying to talk to us, but because a civilization that develops tools and high technology will eventually discover radio, and radio is massively useful. We are broadcasting our existence to the universe right now–not from an attempt to be chatty with any extraterrestrial neighbors, but simply by virtue of the fact that we broadcast all kinds of noise just by virtue of being a technological species.
There are three common answers to the Fermi Paradox, which can be summed up as:
1. We’re first.
2. We’re rare.
3. We’re fucked.
The “we’re first” and “we’re rare” answers suggest we don’t see the evidence of technological civilizations filling the skies because technological civilizations are very, very thin on the ground in the cosmos…err, that’s a jumbled metaphor, but you get what I mean.
Life may be common, but technological life might not. And there could be things–Great Filters, they’re called–that aren’t necessarily obvious to us, but that conspire to keep technological life rare.
Maybe it’s the distribution of planets in a solar system. People who believe life is common like to point to the fact that we are an unremarkable star in an unremarkable galaxy–one of quadrillions in the observable universe.
But it turns out that while our star is unremarkable, our solar system is very weird indeed, and we still don’t know why. The other solar systems we’ve discovered so far tend to have planets all of about the same size. Ours decidedly does not. Our planet is really very small indeed, it seems.
So whatever caused our solar system to be so weird might be a Great Filter. It may be that it’s hard to get sapient life that uses technology and builds cities on a huge planet or a gas giant.
So that might be a Great Filter.
The third solution, “we’re fucked,” proposes that there is a great filter, but it’s ahead of us, not behind us. This solution suggests that the things a new sapient species needs to survive when it’s young–things like aggressiveness, tribalism, xenophobia, aggression, and violence–work against that species when it reaches the point of globe-spanning civilizations. The reason we don’t see the skies filled with traces of advanced sapient species is advanced sapient species tend to destroy themselves, simply by virtue of the fact that the traits they need to survive when they’re young inevitably act against survival when they’re mature.
Okay, so that’s the backstory.
Let’s talk about the James Webb Space Telescope.
The James Webb Space Telescope is due to launch next year. When it does, one of its primary missions is to examine the atmosphere of known exoplanets, looking for traces of oxygen.
Oxygen in the air is rather a big deal. Planets don’t have free oxygen without life. This planet started out with a reducing atmosphere, not an oxygenating one. It didn’t get oxygen in the air until the advent of cyanobacteria and oxygenic photosynthesis.
Oxygenic photosynthesis is a complex, fiddly process that may have evolved only once. When it did, everything changed. Oxygen is poison to anaerobic life. The coming of cyanobacteria started the Great Oxygen Catastrophe–that’s actually what it’s called–that wiped out almost every species on earth. And paved the way for us.
Oxygen might be necessary for sapience, simply because cellular metabolism in the absence of oxygen is necessarily limited and sluggish. Active metabolisms require oxygen, at least so far as we can tell.
And brains require highly active metabolisms indeed. Information processing is horrendously energy-intensive. Your brain consumes a substantial fraction of your body’s total energy capacity. No Oxygen Catastrophe probably means no animals with central nervous systems and almost certainly means no sapience.
Oxygen can’t stay put. It’s too reactive. If every photosynthetic organism died, our atmosphere would return to non-oxygenating, as the oxygen in the air reacted and combined with things.
So if you see oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere, that means something’s continually putting it there. Like photosynthesis or some similar process. And that probably means life.
When James Webb is online, it will either see oxygen on exoplanets or it won’t.
If it doesn’t, that points to oxygenic photosynthesis as a rare innovation. Which means we might owe our existence to cyanobacteria, and that means at least one Great Filter is behind us.
It also means complex life with energetic metabolisms–animals–is probably incredibly rare in the universe.
On the other hand, if we see oxygen everywhere, that probably means that oxygenic photosynthesis is a common innovation, which suggests a universe not only teeming with life but possibly complex life.
It also means that at least one potential Great Filter behind us isn’t a Great Filter, which raises the odds of a Great Filter ahead of us.
I’m not sure which result I’m hoping for: a lonely universe with greater odds of our survival, or a teeming universe with lower.
There is an Italian version of More Than Two. Or rather, there is, in an alternate universe in which the Italian publisher who published the Italian-language edition of More Than Two was honest and abided by its agreements, an Italian version of More Than Two. Alas, that universe is not this universe.
In the universe we live in, the publisher signed an agreement, but then never made the payment that would have activated the rights transfer. They also added a foreword without consulting with us first, something explicitly forbidden in the agreement.
Okay, so that’s shitty and all, but the place where things get especially weird is that so far, every Italian person we’ve talked to about this has nodded sagely and said, “Well, yes. That’s Italy.”
Since things have gone sideways with the Italian publisher, I’ve heard a number of stories of commiseration from Italians. This is, it seems, about par for the course when one sets out to do business in Italy.
Which is really weird, when you think about it.
But I didn’t come here to complain about the Italian publisher of More Than Two. I came here to talk about game theory.
Say you’re a businessperson who deals with a certain…unsavory element buying and selling products you legally oughtn’t. Say that, for your security and that of your clients, you always do business anonymously. You don’t know who your clients are, they don’t know who you are, and never the two of you shall meet. You do business indirectly: you leave a suitcase full of money under the tree stump at the old Dearborn farm, and your client leaves a sack with the shady goods under a trestle out by the abandoned railroad bridge.
This is a variant on the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem, which I’ve touched on before in the context of polyamory. This is a classic problem in game theory. You have a choice: leave your money or leave an empty suitcase. Your mystery client has a choice: leave the goods or leave an empty sack. If you both leave what you’re supposed to leave, you both benefit. If one of you leaves what you’re supposed to leave and the other leaves nothing, then whoever left nothing makes out double–he gets the money and the goods. And if you both leave nothing, neither of you loses but neither of you gains, either.
In game theory terms, you each have a choice: cooperate (C) or defect (D). Each of you chooses C or D. If you both choose C, you both benefit a little; if you both choose D, neither of you benefits but you also don’t lose; if one chooses C and once chooses D, the person who chooses C loses and the person who chooses D gains.
The temptation, then, is very strong to defect.
Ah, but what if you don’t have just a single exchange? What if you have a standing arrangement where you do the transaction every Friday night at midnight? If your mystery partner defects, you will naturally lose trust, and you’ll have no reason to cooperate. But if both of you defect all the time, neither of you is getting what you want! Presumably you want the goods more than you want the money, and presumably they want the money more than they want the goods, or else you’d never agree to the exchange. So what benefit is there in both of you practicing an all-defect strategy?
So the calculation is a bit different in one-off exchanges (where there’s strong incentive to defect) vs. an ongoing relationship (where there’s incentive to cooperate).
These situations play out all the time in real life. Every day, we have choices to cooperate or defect, where defecting might give us short-term gain, but at the cost of long-term success. Some of those choices are made in situations where there won’t be an ongoing relationship, and some in situations where there will.
Most of the time, we know the other player in these games; it’s rare the other side is totally anonymous. It’s also rare each side is powerless to seek redress if one party defects. In fact, you could make a case for the notion that’s what civilization is: a system designed to prevent people from practicing an all-defect strategy without consequence.
We are a social species. Social entities have to work together. If everyone defects all the time, social structures break down. This is, in fact, hypothesized as the root of altruism: for social species, altruism has positive survival value. Working together, we can accomplish more, and survive challenges we can’t survive apart. (There’s a book about this, in fact; it’s called The Evolution of Cooperation.)
But there’s no getting around the fact that defecting does offer a short-term payoff, especially if you do it and your partner doesn’t. And there’s a huge penalty for cooperating if your partner defects. Them’s the facts.
In most human societies, most people cooperate most of the time. In some societies, however, it seems people are more prone to defect.
The Italian publisher applied and all-defect strategy with us. They defected when they didn’t pay us, and defected again when they added a foreword. When we complained, they said they’d stop selling the book until we resolved our differences; and while we were in the process of negotiating with them to do so, they defected yet again, continuing to sell and advertise the book when they’d said they’d stop. And then, when we complained again, they said, “Ok, sue us, Italian courts are so slow it’ll never go to trial–and even if it does, we don’t have any money anyway.”
So finally, we stopped trying to negotiate, issued a statement, and started filing takedown requests. From the publisher’s perspective, this probably felt like a defection. And neither we nor the publisher got what we wanted. And everyone shrugged and said, “Yeah, that’s Italy for you.”
Worse, the fact that we pulled the plug probably validated the publisher’s idea. “See,” they might say, “this is why we behave the way we do–because, look, people are always screwing us!” When you practice an all-D strategy, your partners are going to defect too. Which means you should defect, because they’re going to defect, so why should you be the only chump cooperating?
But here’s the thing: Since we are, arguably, evolved to be cooperative; since most of the encounters we have are not one-off exchanges (and even if they are, word gets around–if you screwed your last ten customers, the eleventh might not want to deal with you); and since societies need some minimum level of cooperating in order to function…why do we occasionally see places where people appear to play an all-D strategy?
One person Eve and I have spoken to has suggested that Italy has such a long history of corrupt, dysfunctional politics and essentially broken legal systems that people have developed a habit of breaking rules, simply because in a corrupt society, you must break rules simply to get anything done. This pattern has played out in Russia as well, another place where, it seems, all-D strategies are common. If that’s true, it would seem to create a perfect storm of positive feedback: people begin to defect routinely, as a matter of course, because the social systems have become dysfunctional. This causes the social systems to become more dysfunctional, because societies in which many people tend to defect are intrinsically dysfunctional. That increased dysfunction causes more people to defect more often in their exchanges with others, which leads to greater dysfunction, and so it goes.
Which, if that’s true, bodes ill.
There is, right now, in the US White House, a person who has made a career of defecting. The Cheeto-in-Chief is notorious for screwing his contractors, his vendors, and his financial backers; that’s why he ended up in bed with Russian banks–American banks refuse to do business with him. His Orangeness has surrounded himself with people who also tend to practice all-D strategies; indeed, one could argue that the Tea Party was virtually built on a foundation of all-D behavior.
I fear that, if this idea becomes entrenched enough in US society, it will become normalized to defect as a matter of course, in all kinds of business and social interactions. Once that positive feedback loop sets in, I’m not sure how, or if, it can be reversed.
And people will sigh, and nod, and say, “You got screwed by an American company? Yeah, that’s the Americans for you.”
A society that works this way will never remain a world power. (Russia, I’m looking at you here.)
Eve loves to read to me. It’s one of the love languages we share, and it’s been a part of our relationship for years. We’ve read fiction (like Use of Weapons) and non-fiction (like Parasite Rex) together.
The Lucifer Effect is a book by Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who designed the now-infamous Stanford prison experiment. The Stanford prison experiment was an attempt to understand the dynamics of deindividuation in prison environments. Zimbardo hypothesized that prisoners lose their sense of individual identity in institutional settings. The experiment, which had been focused on prisoners, ended up showing that prison guards become abusive not because they are evil or abusers, but because the psychological environment of prison creates enormous pressure for otherwise normal people to become abusive and sadistic. The experiment recruited a group of college students to role-play prisoners or guards in a false prison. Within days, the students assigned to guard roles became so violent, abusive, and sadistic, and tortured the students playing the role of prisoners so severely, that the experiment was discontinued.
And the book has turned into a rough ride for me.
Reading the book, which goes into great detail about the physical and psychological abuse inflicted on the “prisoners” by the “guards,” has been surprisingly difficult. When Eve reads this book to me, I find my blood pressure shooting up, I end up angry and irritable, and I have trouble sleeping.
This is Venango Elementary School, in Venango, Nebraska, the tiny town where I grew up.
It’s more fair to say this was Venango Elementary School. It closed for lack of students decades ago. Venango had 242 people living in it when I was there; at the last census, the population had fallen to 167, none of whom are children. The grounds are still maintained by a retired gentleman who’s lived in Venango most of his life, but nobody’s had a class here in a very long time.
When I was in middle school, I was socially isolated and alienated. I was the only kid in town who didn’t follow football, and the only one who owned a computer. I had no friends, and spent my time building model rockets or dialing computer bulletin boards from my TRS-80.
Needless to say, I was bullied extensively during my career in middle school. The two worst offenders were the two Mikes, Mike A. and Mike C. They were both a couple of years older than I was and quite a lot bigger, and they were inseparable. One of them—I think it was Mike C., though time may have garbled that detail—was fond of coming to school in a T-shirt with iron-on letters on it that spelled out “It’s nice to be injected but I’d rather be blown.” (It’s about cars, geddit? Geddit?)
The particulars of the abuse I suffered at their hands is as predictable as it is tedious, so I won’t bother cataloging them. The official response from teachers and faculty was also tediously predictable; they were aware of the abuse but not particularly motivated to intervene.
I went into high school shy and with few social skills. Then, about the time I was midway through my senior year, I changed.
I had always believed that the reason I was bullied was the reasons bullies gave for bullying me: I wore glasses; I didn’t like football; I liked computers. It took a very long time for me to learn that the content of bullying is completely separate from bullying. That is, bullies bully because they are bullies. If I didn’t wear glasses, if I didn’t like computers, if I did like football, they would still have bullied me, they just would have bullied me about different things.
But that wasn’t the life-changing revelation. In fact, it didn’t come until after the life-changing revelation.
The life-changing revelation was that bullies bully people who don’t fight back. If you want to end bullying, you walk up to the biggest, meanest bully of the bunch, reach back, and punch him square in the face. When bullies realize you bite back, they look for easier prey.
So I went into college with a whole new attitude about violence, one that a lot of folks who know me now find difficult to believe. I was, for a while, quite willing to resort to casual violence in the service of self-protection. I got into fistfights often, and learned yet another lesson: victory does not go to the biggest or the strongest person in the fight. Victory, nine times out of ten, goes to the person who escalates fastest, the one willing to do what the other person is not. I could get in a fight with opponents far larger and stronger than I was, and I almost always came out on top, because I escalated swiftly and aggressively.
I am not the person I used to be. Or, more accurately, I am not the people I used to be. I’m not the shy, friendless, unsocialized bullying victim I was in Venango. I’m also not the aggressive, in-your-face, ready-for-a-fight guy with a hair trigger I was in college. In fact, most of the time it’s hard for me to connect with either of those mindsets any more.
But man, this book.
This book does not mince detail. It describes, directly and even clinically, the abuses suffered by the “prisoners” on behalf of the “guards,” abuses that range from verbal bullying to refusing to allow the prisoners to use the bathroom and forcing them to urinate and defecate in their rooms.
When Eve reads this book to me, I’m transported back to the person I was in college. I can feel my body amping up—I can feel the adrenaline, the shaking, the hair trigger coiled up inside me ready to explode that I used to feel back in my college days whenever someone would start harassing me. And I mean that literally; my hands will shake while she’s reading.
I can identify with the group of students who were made into prisoners. I can understand what they’re experiencing. And I believe that if I had been chosen to participate in an experiment like the SPE and had been assigned to the role of prisoner, there is a very strong likelihood I would have injured or killed one of the “guards,” or been injured or killed myself in the attempt.
It’s been rough, this book. It’s brought me viscerally back to a time and place that I haven’t been in for more than half my life now. We’ve had to switch from reading it in the evening before bed to reading it in the afternoon, because when we read it at night, I can’t sleep.
The book is an excellent deep dive into the underworld of institutional evil (and it’s astonishing how closely the casual abuse that happened in the faux prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building mirrored the abuses in the real world at Abu Ghraib, and for exactly the same reasons). It’s a book I think everyone needs to read, now more than ever, and I’m glad we’re reading it.